In 2012, Mayor Rahm Emanuel forged a groundbreaking partnership between the Chicago Public Schools and the Chicago Public Library that put a new community library — open to the public — in Back of the Yards High School.
By pooling diminishing resources, CPS and City Hall were able to offer “teen-focused collections and digital learning amenities” and still operate a public library for all Back of the Yards residents, who had lost their storefront library to flooding.
On Sunday, Emanuel will break ground on three more neighborhood libraries — all designed by prominent Chicago architects — that are the product of partnerships with the Chicago Housing Authority.
The first and most controversial project is the Roosevelt Library that will be built at the base of the Taylor Apartments, a CHA building at 1342 W. Taylor Street.
The 73-unit Taylor Street project will include 37 units of CHA housing, 29 affordable apartments and seven market-rate apartments. Designed by Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, it’s part of Roosevelt Square, the massive redevelopment of what was once the ABLA homes.
Construction is also getting underway at the Independence Apartments and Independence Library at 4022 W. Irving Park Road in Irving Park and the Northtown Apartments and Northtown Branch Library at 6800 N. Western in West Ridge.
Both of those projects will have 44 apartments set aside for seniors, including 30 public housing and 14 affordable. The Independence project was designed by John Ronan Architects. The Northtown project was designed by Perkins & Will.
The architects were chosen in a design competition tailor-made to deliver on Emanuel’s promise to break from what City Hall calls the “standard, cookie-cutter designs” that have long been the standard for government buildings and bring “world-class design” to Chicago neighborhoods.
Mixing libraries and CHA housing is a way to make the most of diminishing resources and convince local residents to accept public housing they might otherwise fear. But, it hasn’t always worked that way.
Last summer, more than 500 Little Italy residents signed petitions urging the Chicago Plan Commission to put off a vote on the project to give them more time to negotiate the size and scope of the project Taylor Street project.
They talked about a “visible increase in crime,” they fear will only be exacerbated by the CHA project. They warned that a 9-to-1 ratio between low- and market-rate housing in a seven-story, 73-unit complex in Little Italy was a “train wreck” and a “prescription for neighborhood de-stabilization.”
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th) countered that the new library that will anchor a seven-story CHA building will be a sorely needed “shot in the arm” to a Taylor Street commercial strip in “decline.”
Ervin also bristled at the suggestion that the project would open the door to increased crime.
“Just because one is poor does not mean they are prone to criminal activity. There are plenty of rich individuals who have been prone to criminal activity,” Ervin said then.
Under pressure from area residents, Developer Jacques Sandberg argued that it would be “impossible” to build a stand-alone library without the housing component, which makes the entire project eligible for tax credits and federal funding.
“Chicago Public Library is not flush with cash, and the city is strapped, so really, we’re looking at an empty bucket,” he said.
In August, 2016, Emanuel announced that the cramped public library at one of the CHA’s most historic developments would be replaced by a new library that doubles as a “community center.”
Work continues on that Koo-designed new library to be built on CHA-owned land along 130th Street, near Ellis Avenue, adjacent to the Far South Side’s Altgeld Gardens development. The CHA will pick up the $7 million tab for construction. The city will operate and maintain the facility.
“When we unite the strengths of our neighborhood libraries with great housing that is affordable and accessible, it is truly the best of both worlds,” Emanuel was quoted as saying in a press release.
“Chicago is breaking the mold of what world-class libraries and housing can look like—and staying at the cutting edge of creating shared spaces that bring communities together.”